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Rated: 13+ · Other · Romance/Love · #1159634
Excerpt from a completed historical romance.
Delaney stood in the doorway, grateful for the chance to rest a spell while he waited for Cress Harding to notice him. He was contented to watch the handsome young widow in her domestic chore. The curve of her slender frame from her narrow shoulders to her tiny waist and enticing hips as she moved was wordless poetry. He wished, watching her, that he was in better condition to enjoy the spectacle.

Although he’d given better than he’d gotten to Selby at the saloon, what he’d gotten had taken a lot out of him. He’d hoped to retreat to his bunk before supper to try and recover, but it looked as if he’d have to wait for that opportunity until Cress Harding was through chewing him out. He’d been chewed out by her once before, in Chugwater, and he wasn’t looking forward to a second helping. He was in the middle of a deep sigh before he realized it. The sound of the breath leaving his body drew the furious widow’s attention in his direction at last.

The anger apparent on her lovely features blended to distress as she beheld him.

“Good Lord, what have you done?” she uttered in a whisper, abandoning the towel in favor of a closer examination of his injuries. Before he could make shift to answer her, her gentle fingers pressed lightly against the flesh near the source of pain on his injuries. Instinctively he pulled back from her touch.

“It’s nothing,” he grumbled, unable, for some reason, to sustain her gaze. “I’m all right.”

The hand withdrew. She crossed her arms in front of her bosom as though she had not intended for it to stray.

“Sit down,” was the curt order that came forth from her pretty, pursed mouth. She walked away from him in a purposeful stride, retrieving a basin and several towels from the cupboard.

Delaney obeyed without answering, relieved to be off his feet at last. His temple was throbbing and he felt as though at any moment he might pass out. He’d rather eat dirt than fall on his face in Cress Harding’s kitchen, in front of her. He concentrated on her graceful movements as she filled the basin with water and carried it to the table, hoping that the focus would enable him to remnain alert while in her presence. His head sank slowly backward against the chair and the next thing he knew there was a cool, damp pressure on his brow. He jerked and sat upright, mortified that he had lost consciousness in front of her even for a moment. She did not seem to notice. That was a mercy, at least.

“I hope this fight was worth it. You’ll have a few souvenirs to remember it by,” she told him in a tone which suggested she was glad of that fact. “It looks as though you’ll have a black eye. And a cut lip. Did he break your jaw as well?”

Delaney fixed a glare at her, though it cost him an effort. What the hell was she so mad at anyway?

“No,” he retorted, wishing he was in better shape to demonstrate that fact to her.

Her gentle fingers pressed along his jawline on both sides of his face as though testing his answer.

“Humph,” was her only response.

She disappeared from view and he heard the sounds of water in the washbasin behind him on the table. In another moment the towel was on his brow again. It was as close to heaven as he was ever going to get. Today, at least.

“I don’t approve of brawling, Mr. Delaney,” she told him in a crisp tone. “I’ve a good mind to send you packing. Can I at least assume there was a reason for this altercation?”

Delaney bit his lip and winced. He’d forgotten about the cut. The reason for the brawl, as she’d called it, wasn’t something he particularly cared to get into with her. He could still see Selby’s ugly face over the card table in the corner of the saloon…

“Jacks over queens,” Matheson’s dog had said loudly to the whole room as he’d laid down a full house. “Gents over ladies. Bet she don’t take it that way, does she, Texas?”

Delaney, at the bar, had felt Selby’s eyes on his back as he’d uttered the remark. A slow, hot fire began in his belly as he’d turned to the man and he disregarded a restraining hand from Alex Worth.

“I’m havin’ a little trouble understanding’ you, Selby,” Delaney had said then, training his stare upon the big man seated across the room at the card table. “That’s either because you ain’t speakin’ clearly, or I’m not lookin’ right at you when you talk. Why don’t you say what you have to say right to my face?”

Selby’s unpleasant grin did not change. He shrugged his big, bearlike shoulders carelessly.

“Why not?” he countered in a loud voice, causing more heads to turn in his direction. “Everybody knows it. It’s no secret that the Widda Harding tries out every man who comes into – “

No further words had escaped the man’s mouth after that. Before he quite knew what he was doing, Delaney launched himself from his place at the bar and delivered punches to the larger, burlier man who had been ready for him. All the while cursing himself for having allowed the man to goad him into the fight, Delaney dodged, delivered, and took several blows, causing general mayhem in the Last Chance Saloon and busting up Selby’s already ugly face pretty good. Worth stood by grinning, even taking bets from interested spectators. It was only the advent of the sheriff that had prevented Delaney from trying to kill the miscreant bastard with his bare hands.

“Mr. Delaney?” Cress Harding prodded.

“We argued over cards,” he said at last through gritted teeth. Mrs. Harding stood over him with a disbelieving scowl marring her attractive features.

“Who?” she demanded, her hands on her hips. “Who did you fight with?”

Delaney stifled a sigh and closed his eyes. She was wearing him down. He didn’t want to tell her everything, but if she kept at him much longer, he just might out of sheer fatigue.

“Selby,” he breathed, willing away an encroaching blackness from the edges of his brain like the fringes of a worn-out shirt.

“Do you honestly expect me to believe that you sat down at a card table with Selby?” Her rich soprano was full of doubt. It was common knowledge already after only a week in Chance that Paris Delaney had no love for Phillip Matheson and his minions, Selby among them.

Delaney felt a reluctant grin tug at the corners of his mouth as he remembered the crash of the poker table when he’d landed on it full force. His face hurt from the exercise.

“No, I wouldn’t put it that way exactly,” his honestly compelled him to admit.

The Widow Harding issued a sigh of exasperation. She stood before him again, her brow furrowed as she concentrated on his injury with an iodine stick.

“Mr. Delaney, I don’t think you appreciate the seriousness of this situation!” she exclaimed, her tone radiating common sense if not calm. “Chance is a civilized place, not given to exercises of violence of any kind. You and Mr. Worth have newly arrived from Texas with intentions to settle here. It’s in your best interest to keep local customs and behave in a more prudent manner, especially since you’ve already decided to lock horns with the town’s most powerful citizen!”

God, he loved her voice! He wanted to curl up in the warm, sweet sound of it and allow it to caress him gently into a healing sleep.

“I do wish you’d tell me the whole story,” she went on, although her tone substituted the word “insist” for “wish.” “Chance is a fair-sized town, but not so big that this incident won’t be on everyone’s lips for days, especially what with the church social coming up. I’d rather know your version before someone else’s interpretation of the event inspires me into a killing rage.”

Delaney closed his eyes tightly. It felt like there was a big metal ball slowly rolling around inside his skull.

“I’ll tell you,” he muttered, placing a hand beside his temple, hoping to stop that ball. “If you’ll tell me something too.”

Cress bit her lip, trying to curb her exasperation. Here was Paris Delaney in her kitchen, bruised and bleeding like a side of beef, and he was still negotiating with her for information. The notion, were he not so pitiably injured, might have been funny. She dabbed at the gash over his eye, aware that she was trying very hard to cause him no further hurt.

“What would you like to know?” she replied in a singsong way, hoping to pacify him long enough to treat his injuries properly.

“What was Matheson doin' here this afternoon?” Delaney’s growl was like the warning of a cornered, wounded predator. The sound of it took Cress by surprise.

“Mr. Delaney, it isn’t really any of your – “

“He courtin’ you?” Delaney persisted, his voice reedy as he sucked in a hard breath.

His direct question flustered her and she could not form an answer for him.

“He is,” Delaney breathed, and a brief, lopsided smile skittered across his wide mouth as his dark eyes, bleary but alert, pierced her embarrassment. “Nobody, not even a fancified dued like Matheson, gussies himself all up like that ‘less he was comin’ a’courtin’. Guess I kinda broke things up, huh?”

Cress could only stare at him, an inexplicable flood of warmth filling her cheeks. Her palm itched. She longed, for some reason, to strike him.

“Well, I ain’t sorry,” Delaney remarked. Somehow, Cress knew that. His assured voice gathered strength from some unknown source. “You’re a sight too good for the likes of – Ow!”

Cress applied more tincture of iodine to the cut on Delaney’s brow and the tall Texan drew back with the shock of the sting, his comment forgotten. She wished, stealing a glance at him, that she could prepare a plaster for his wide mouth that would be as effective.

“A deal is a deal, Mr. Delaney,” she reminded him even as he glared at her. “Now if you please, what was the motivation for this fight? And who started it?”

If he had hoped she would reveal more of her personal life to him in that weak moment, he had surely been stymied. That satisfied her. Paris Delaney was, after all, a most irritating and meddlesome man who deserved to be disappointed more often than he was.

The Texan stretched a little in the spindled chair, his lean, pantherlike form expanding even as she watched. He winced again and gave a small grunt. He was procrastinating.

“Selby ‘n me,” we don’t see eye to eye, Mrs. Harding,” he allowed finally. He sounded like a man whose collar was too tight, although he wasn’t wearing one. “Selby don’t think nothin’ of insulting a lady. And I just can’t let some things slide. Hell, half the men in the saloon prob’ly would have done the same thing as me. I just beat ‘em to it, is all. -- Oh.” The abashed expression on Delaney’s boyish, handsome features told Cress that he had not meant to swear in her presence. “’Scuse me, Mrs. Harding.”

“That won’t do, Mr. Delaney,” she persisted. “I insist upon knowing the whole story. At once, if you please.”

The grimace on Paris Delaney’s rawboned features told her that he had no wish to be more specific. But there was no time for him to dissemble.

“Just remember, I didn’t want to tell you,” he growled again, laying his head against the back of the chair as he closed his eyes. His tone was thick and weary. The sound of it made her want to touch him.

“Your name was mentioned,” he said on his next breath, as though the admission cost him. “In a saloon. In an uncomplimentary way. I ain’t sorry, and I’d do it again. And that’s all there is to it.”

A painful knot formed in the pit of Cress’s stomach. Suddenly Delaney was looking at her again and she realized that a full minute must have passed since she had spoken. She resisted an impulse to turn away from him, electing to try to fight her telling blush instead.

“I don’t approve of fighting, Mr. Delaney,” she managed, her voice a shade or two softer than she would have liked under the circumstances. “And I hope it won’t happen again.” But I have to admit, she added silently, allowing herself a naughty slice of vengeance, if Selby looks anything like you, there is some justice in the world after all.

“You think it’s funny, don’t you?” The harsh timbre of his voice startled her. He sounded like a young boy who’d had his feelings hurt and was attempting to mask the fact with sarcasm and hard words. She took in a breath that quivered and at last deemed it safe to look away from him.

“No I don’t,” she argued. “As a matter of fact, I think it’s rather sweet.”

It was too quiet then.

“What – what did Selby say?”

Delaney cast his gaze downward. A flush of red swelled up his neck and along his cheekbones and his throat bobbed once.

“It don’t matter,” he mumbled, starting to rise. “I know it isn’t so. And I know the rest of the town knows it too. I don’t guess a smart lady like you hires a gossipy housekeeper and foreman just because she likes to hear ‘em talk. I got a feelin’ that if anything was – that if you was behavin’ like – well, that the town would sure hear of it right quick with Mary Mott about.”

Cress’s jaw went slack. It happened that Paris Delaney was exactly right: to live in a glass house, she had reasoned since her untimely widowhood, was the very best way to dodge the stones of slander and scandal. She had little suspected, though, that her motives were that transparent.

But then Paris Delaney was no ordinary person.

The Texan was on his feet like a new colt. He towered over her and she instinctively reached out to steady him. The muscles of his forearms were as hard as steel through the soft material of his faded chambray shirt. She had not felt them since that propitious accident on the stagecoach out of Chugwater, and she wanted to. Very much. Shocked by the realization, she withdrew her hands from his arms once again. Good heavens, she thought, feeling that treacherous blush fill her cheeks again. (Why was there never a blush far away when Paris Delaney was around?) I’ll have him believing whatever awful things Selby said of me. She turned away to the sideboard, where she noticed that something was very wrong.

The crullers, forgotten in the confusion of this emergency, had been left to rise too long. The rich yellow dough oozed out from under the tea towel and glopped onto the smooth wooden surface of the sideboard like some loathsome living thing that had escaped its confinement. The dough stuck to the tea towel as she tried to uncover it. The mess reeked of overproofed yeast. Cress was mortified beyond words.

“I guess I’m to blame for that.” Paris Delaney’s achingly soft contrition was genuine. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Harding. I’m nothing but trouble for you.”

She wanted to cry. The whole day had been a disaster. And there was nothing for it but to start all over from scratch. She choked back a sob, not wanting to reveal her vulnerable state to Delaney nor admit it to herself. It was all so silly, so petty. How had she allowed this to happen to her? She squared her shoulders.

“Please go now , Mr. Delaney,” she managed in a light tone. “I – have work to do.”

But she didn’t want him to leave. Did he know that? She hoped he did. She prayed he didn’t.
© Copyright 2006 M.DeFarge (m.defarge at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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